Posts Tagged ‘Humanism’

Humanist Chaplaincy Level 1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2021 | Foundation

The Humanist Chaplaincy network has relaunched its digital platform and, for the first time, has brought its training course into digital as well. The new Humanist Chaplaincy Level 1 provides an introduction to the foundations of philosophy, theory and practice as a non-religious chaplain. Find out more on their website.

Venla’s naming ceremony

Friday, May 12th, 2017 | Family & Parenting

In March, we held a naming ceremony for Venla. How time flies. She is now seven months old and I still haven’t written anything up about it. Thank you to everyone who attended, especially those who took part in the ceremony and Christine for leading it.

Humanist picnic 2016

Thursday, September 8th, 2016 | Humanism


After the success of our summer picnic last year, we decided to repeat the same event for this year’s summer social. Kirkstall Abbey once again played host and the weather was once again kind to us.

Around 15 people turned up, along with loads of food. Michael even repeated his guided tour of the Abbey for those who wanted to attend. A good day all round.

West Yorkshire Humanists 2016 AGM

Sunday, June 12th, 2016 | Humanism
Sarann delivers her report on our charity work

Earlier this month we held our AGM at West Yorkshire Humanists. It was a really positive meeting: this year we have significantly increased our membership (more than 20% increase), turned a financial deficit into a surplus and have completed more charity work than ever before.

Humanism and the Science of Morality

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015 | Humanism

Last month I presented a talk at Atheist Society entitled “Humanism and the Science of Morality”. It looked at why we have morals, how it works in an evolutionary framework, and what that knowledge tells us when constructing a moral framework in Humanism.

Most of all though, I am pleased to see A-Soc still going. A few of us thought it might have been the final year last year, but their start-of-term pub quiz showed otherwise. At my talk too there were fresh young faces, and hopefully the society will enjoy many more years.

The Moral Arc

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015 | Books

In his 2015 book The Moral Arc, Michael Shermer sets out to explain how science and reason have guided moral values throughout history and continue to do so to this day.

The arc represents the expanding moral sphere. Historically, on an evolutionary timescale, we would have mostly been concerned with ourselves and our offspring. As time goes on, this expands to our family, to the wider community, to all humanity, and now to all conscious beings.

As Shermer correctly points out, it is going in the right direction. We live in the safest time to be alive – even if it doesn’t always feel that way! There are less wars, we are wiping out slavery, homicide rates are at an all time low, rape is outlawed in the west and torture is illegal. Violent crime goes down year on year. Traditionally many of these things were common, and even legal!

One of the reasons for this is a better understanding of the world. If you think one of the women in your village is a witch, and that she is causing your crops to fail, the rational thing to do is to burn her. It’s horrible, but it is a mistaken fact about the world, rather than people being moral. Of course the causes of the witch trials were numerous and complex, but Shermer argues that this contributing role, which can be seen throughout history has a large impact, and explains why we become more moral as we gain a better scientific understanding of how the world works.

Slavery is a good example of this. Much of the slave trade was supported by the claim that black people were not humans. Now, with out understanding of evolution and generics, this view cannot be supported by evidence, so the moral argument for slavery (and a moral argument did used to be made in favour of it!) collapses.

Another reason is increased intelligence. Shermer claims that our IQ raises approximately 3 points every decade (though IQ tests are normalised so the actual number remains consistent). This and better education allows us to conceptualise other people’s feelings more and more, and thus expand our moral sphere to today where we can consider how a factory-farmed chicken might feel.

Interestingly, some studies show that reading fiction can improve your ability to empathise. Maybe all that time is not wasted after all.

Morality is a survival technique. It allow us to act altruistically while punishing freeloaders. As humans, we survive better when we work together for common good. However, to stop people taking advantage of this, morality evolves to stop people taking advantage of this.

The book discusses expensive signalling. For example, pirates. Why would a pirate ship fly a pirate flag, telling everyone they are pirates? Surely that increases the chance of the navy spotting them and gives ships a warning when they approach? Shermer suggests the answer is that they wanted people to be scared.

Pirates are not the drunken disorganised ramble you imagine. They were very well organised, had strict rules, a chain o’ command and even constitutions! Why? It was the only way they could run a ship and turn a profit. However, by creating this false impression and being so bold as to fly a pirate flag they convinced many ships to surrender without violence. This was good for everyone as the pirates did not really want to fight – that cost lives!

Another example discussed is the nuclear bombs deployed in the Second World War. Often viewed as morality questionable decisions. However, when considered in the cool light of rationalism, probably made sense. When the Allied Forces took the first Japanese island all but 200 of the 21,000 soldiers and civilians fought to the death! Invading mainland Japan would have seen massive casualties on both sides. In fact the conventional bombing of Tokyo that would have proceeded a land invasion would have taken more lives than the nuclear bombs. Deploying the nukes waa a demonstration of our ability to choose between the lesser of two evils then.

As another interesting aside, Shermer notes that almost all businesses suffer during the war, and therefore it is not often in the oligarchy’s interest to go to war. Whether that stretches as far as Halliburton though, remains to be seen.

Increasingly today we are seeing non-violent campaigns come into play. These work even better as they are more representative of society (violent uprisings tends to be primarily composed of young males). Non-violence has a higher success rate, especially if it reaches a 3.5% share of the population, which Shermer argues is the critical mass.

The idea that we used to live more ethical, greener lives is also challenged. It is not that traditional societies felt a moral duty not to damage the environment – they just did not have the power to do it! The reason Native Americans used every part of the buffalo is that they had to to survive.

Political ideas are also challenged. Shermer quotes data showing conservatives give the most to charity even when controlled for income. Liberals on the other house treat tax as a proxy for giving. Of any social group it is the working poor that give the most.

He suggests that men are always trying to control women’s reproductive rights because they have the most to lose from it. Some studies suggest infidelity rates could be 10-20%, or even as high as 30-50%. Women can know with 100% certainly that the child they give birth is their own, whereas men have less certainty, so it is of evolutionary advantage to ensure their partners are being faithful.

The idea of teaching abstinence is also challenged – not that anyone could really think it was a good idea anyway. However, according to the Chapel Hill Study (I think that’s what the name was) showed 1/200 pregnant women reported virgin conception. Gay rights are also discussed in the politics section. Apparently New York law used to require people to weather at least three items of clothing “befitting their gender” whatever that means.

Shermer also talks about the improving moral attitude towards lab animals. In a very honest section of the book he discusses his uncomfortableness with having to gas the lab animals they were using after being told it was illegal for him to take them up to the woods and let them free. Thankfully they are no longer disposed of in this way.

He also discusses the Holocaust which has a lot of crossover with his book Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? Were the soldiers just following orders? Group pressure is certainly an issue. Studies show that if two people try to convince you of a deliberately wrong answer in a test, you will probably fight your ground. However, when four people do it, you are more likely to agree with an answer you know is clearly wrong. Non-conformity is traumatic experience. However, research suggests that you have to actively go along with, thus anyone just following orders is complicit.

The book finishes with a look into the future. There is speculation as to whether nation states would be superseded by a world government (unlikely and undesirable according to those quoted) or city states. How capitalism should be reformed and how an advanced civilisation could take place with cheaper energy.

Overall, this book is a great read. It is pretty random at times. It’s trips through politics, speculation of the future and the organisation do loosely fit into the idea of describing a moral arc, but make for a very winding path. The core message is an important one: morality is a survival trait that is evolved into us and will continue to do so as we pursue a rational, naturalistic, empathetic (Humanist) view of the world.

The Moral Arc

Humanist summer social

Sunday, August 9th, 2015 | Events, Humanism


For this year’s Humanist summer social we held a picnic at Kirkstall Abbey. We got lucky with the weather, enjoying a wonderful sunny day.

Lessons from the Purpose Driven Church

Sunday, July 27th, 2014 | Thoughts

I recently wrote about Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church. Today, I wanted to share some of the ideas that I really identified with in the book, especially with those I can provide examples of here in Leeds. I imagine these ideas are mostly for faith & belief groups such as Humanism and Sunday Assembly, but can also have wider applications to all community groups.

Of course, the central tenant of the book is that a group should do things with purpose. This can be seen to varying degrees in such groups. Leeds Atheist Society always had a clear threefold purpose – to provide education on, fellowship for and open debate about the non-religious. It’s the first thing on our about page.

West Yorkshire Humanists is perhaps less clear, and probably in need of a mission statement. Sunday Assembly is a bit of mixed bag. We have a great slogan: “Live better. Help Often. Wonder more.” However, because we’re not allowed to use the term Humanism, it does not really connect to anything. This has lead to some of our attends describing it as “like playing church without for no reason”, and others as a cult of Sanderson Jones.

Toastmasters is the organisation with the clearest mission of any organisation I am involved in.

We empower individuals to become more effective communicators and leaders.

With a quarter of a million members in 122 countries, I think it is fair to say we are doing pretty well.

Having a clear purpose is critical because then you can then measure everything you do based on that. Everything else is derived from your purpose. That is true of any organisation you will ever be involved in and is probably the most important thing you can learn when it comes to running organisations effectively.

However, I think these points are also interesting…

Do away with committees

Committees decide things, doers do things. Which does your group need? Doers! Sunday Assembly Leeds does not really have a formal committee. We have monthly organisers meetings that are open to all members. There is no election process, you can just turn up and start helping.

Give the power to people implementing the plan. Rather than having committee approval for something, empower people by giving them to decision for the area they are working on. That way you will get much more engaged volunteers.

Provide stability

Warren talks about having a pastor for decades. The best churches are the ones that have the same pastor for a long time.

I am not advocating having the same person lead the group permanently. As secular groups we like to bring in new ideas, new people, have an open democracy. Having a leader-for-life is incompatible with these views. However, we do need to build trust that the organisation people invest their time into, and the friendships that they make, are not suddenly going to disappear.

In my personal life, I often feel more included to people who are more likely to stick around. I would suggest that a community is the same. If you are trying to decide whether to invest a significant amount of time and money into a community, you do so because you think you will get a return out of it over the long term. Therefore are you going to be more predisposed to give to a stable community that looks like it has solid leadership and a strong future, or a community that is constantly scrambling to find new find new leadership?

Write to people

Warren wrote and hand-addressed 15,000 letters to people in the local area. Today, targeted mailings will only get you a response rate of around 1%, untargeted even less. But even if you only get a quarter of one percent, that is still 38 people turning up. Of course, the stamps would now cost you nearly £8,000. This could be a good strategy if you happen to have a postman (we need a British-sounding gender-neutral term for this) in your group.

When I was at GRAM a few years ago, a member of a local Humanist group spoke about how they gathered a group of volunteers and went around posting leaflets through peoples doors. They did thousands of them, and in the end got two members. That does not sound like a lot, but actually for a relatively low-cost exercise, in a group of 20 people, is a 10% growth.

Ask people for a commitment

Saddleback allow people to attend their church every week. But they do not become a member of the church until they make a commitment. This involves taking a membership course, an initiation ceremony, and agreeing the support the church with your time and money. The more he asks them to commit, the more they are willing to do it.

Probably because it offers people real buy in. At Toastmasters, we charge £180 for the first year. There is a £30 sign-up fee and £12.50 per month dues, which by the end of the year adds up. I tend not to mention it when responding to emails about people coming for the first time. I am scared it will put them off. But once they see Toastmasters in action, most of them join. It doesn’t put them off. If anything, it inspires them to turn up to meetings and process through the educational programme.

Research your demographics

Who lives in your local area? Are you in a student town or a retirement community? Young and old, single and married, rich and poor, each of these groups will have different wants and needs and if you want to target your marketing and the content of your group effectively, you need to know who you are targeting.

These days such information is easier than ever before to get hold of. The Census data seems a good start but many local and national authorities, as well as NGOs publish information as well.

Play music as people enter

Warren noticed that the louder he played music when people entered, the more animated people were when talking to each other. People like to be anonymous, especially if they are a guest. Having music on allows them to talk without it being noticed.

In comparison, several times in Skeptics and Toastmasters I will stand at the front a little before we are scheduled to start and everything will go quiet. Getting the conversation restarted for the final two minutes is almost impossible after this. You just end up with two minutes of awkward silence.

Imagine through the eyes of a guest

In software development, you should have a developer and a tester. The developer should test their own code, but it is critical to have another eyes look at the software they have written. Why? Because the developer always uses it from a developer’s perspective! The tester looks at it from a user’s perspective. “It broke when I pushed this button?” “You’re not supposed to push that button.” But somebody might!

When doing anything with your group, you should always keep in mind that as an organiser you are probably a long-established member who knows what is going on. Always take the time to try and imagine how things might also look to a first-time guest who has come to the group to see what it is like. It is clear what is going on? Is it engaging? It is welcoming?

Always use plenty of lighting

Often I will go to a talk, and they will turn the lights off so that you can see the slides. This is the last thing you should be doing! Turn the lights on to as bright as they can be.

Firstly, a bright environment is more friendly and welcoming and keeps people awake. A dimly lit room is intimidating to guests and encourages existing members to take a nap. Keep a buzz in the atmosphere by keeping it bright and upbeat.

Secondly, who cares if people can see the slides? It is not important! People who rely on slides are bad public speakers. I can see slides on the internet. I want to see the speaker actually speak! I want to see their face. Lowering the lights encourages me to look at the slides rather than at the speaker, which is the opposite of what you want to do if you want people to find the talk engaging.

People come for the events, but stay for the friends

Atheist Society runs all year round, including now in summer when the students have gone home and the talks have finished. Why? Because people want to see their friends every week. People come to the group, and stay with the group for different reasons. Or sometimes they come because they have a lack of friends. Either way, social connections are the true glue of a group.


Andrew Copson in Leeds

Sunday, March 24th, 2013 | Events

Recently, Leeds Engage hosted Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association. It was a good talk, as we would expect from Andrew, though it would have been nice to see more people there – I don’t think Leeds Engage spoke to Atheist Society as they had 25 people at an attend the night before, and only a few of us turned up to this.

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GRAM 2012

Thursday, November 29th, 2012 | Events, Humanism

This year, I attended GRAM – Group Representatives Annual Meetup, first the first time. GRAM is an event organised by the British Humanist Association, that brings together the leaders of affiliated groups to talks, discussions and ideas.

The event was held at the Quaker headquarters on Euston Road, which turned out to be a really nice building. I was expecting it to be someone bare, given Quakers are often minimalistic, but it was actually very well furnished inside.

While a lot of the talks weren’t that interesting, it was certainly inspiring to hear other group leaders talk about what they have been doing in their group – something like what we used to do at the AHS, where each group would deliver a quick update, would have worked really well.

There were also some heated discussions between some of the BHA representatives and some of the local groups, regarding the much tighter restrictions being placed on local groups by the BHA. For example, if you try to search for your local humanist group, some groups are now excluded from the map.

Overall, it was reasonably useful. It’s somewhat different to how I imagined, and how we run things like Sunrise Conference, but was useful for catching up with the latest developments on a national level.